“Today, all institutions are being run according to individual whims”: Justice PB Sawant

PB Sawant, a retired Supreme Court judge who served as the PCI chairman between 1995 and 2001, at his home.
10 December, 2020

On 11 November, the Supreme Court granted interim bail to Arnab Goswami, the editor-in-chief of Republic TV, in connection to a two-year-old case of abetment to suicide of Anvay Naik, the managing director of a design and building company. The apex court remarked, “We are walking through the path of destruction of liberty.” The process to secure bail for Goswami, who was arrested in Mumbai on 4 November, was conspicuously swift at a time when journalists critical of the government have been imprisoned and compelled to wait for long periods to even get a hearing.

Despite the increasing persecution of journalists in recent years, statements of solidarity from press associations are often belated or absent. In fact, the Press Council of India, a media watchdog had publicly toed the government line in August 2019, when it told the Supreme Court that the centre’s curbs on the media in Kashmir was in the nation’s interest. In contrast, when Goswami was attacked on 22 April, the PCI had taken sou moto cognisance in under a day, demanding a report on the case from the Maharashtra government. This is despite electronic media, including television, not traditionally falling under the jurisdiction of the PCI.

Aathira Konikkara, a reporting fellow at The Caravan, spoke to PB Sawant, a retired Supreme Court judge who served as the PCI chairman between 1995 and 2001, about the need to regulate electronic media. They also spoke about a defamation lawsuit he had filed, in 2018, against Times Now, then headed by Goswami, for mistakenly airing a photo of Sawant in a story about another judge.

Aathira Konikkara: The Press Council only has jurisdiction over newspapers and news agencies. But in April this year, the PCI took suo moto cognisance of the physical attack against Arnab Goswami. Is it unusual for the PCI to intervene in matters which concern those who are associated with electronic media?
PB Sawant: Well, it all depends on the merits of each case. It can’t be said that PCI should not intervene in such matters. When there are attacks on journalists or what they write or do, then it is possible for PCI to intervene. But they have no authority to take any action.

AK: During the bail hearing in the case of abetment to suicide against Arnab Goswami, Justice Chandrachud had spoken of the need to protect the liberty of every individual. But we don’t see the judiciary extend the same consideration to all journalists and activists who are in jail. Do you think the courts are being selective in listing matters or in granting bail?
PBS: Today, all the institutions are being run according to the individual whims and wills. The judiciary is expected to act according to law and also extend the help of law to everybody equally, whatever the situation, without fear or favour. Now, if people find there is discrimination made in favour of one individual and the interests of other individuals are neglected or deliberately ignored, then it is for the people to raise their voice.

AK: Do you think quasi-judicial bodies like the PCI need reform in terms of its duties in holding the media accountable?
PBS: First of all, the PCI’s jurisdiction should now also extend to electronic media like television and radio. Today, one part—and I would say the largest part—of the media is exempt from any regulation or supervision by bodies like the PCI. In fact, when I was the chairman of the PCI, I had sent a draft legislation to include the electronic media, particularly television, under PCI’s jurisdiction. That was, I suppose, when Sushma Swaraj, was the broadcasting minister. But nothing has been done.

I heard two weeks ago that there was a demand for regulatory body for the television also, but nothing more has been done in that direction. But it is needed. Looking at the kind of incidents that have been occurring for the last few months, I feel that there is a need for such regulation.

AK: We can see that conspiracy-theories like “love jihad” are gaining legitimacy in mainstream discourse. Even in the context of COVID-19, Muslims were vilified as carriers of the virus. Do you think the Indian media can recover from this absence of accountability?
PBS: Media can be a great divider between communities. In fact, they require a more severe punishment than that given for the usual faults of the media. Those who try to disunite the country are the enemies of the country. That is also the reason why television requires regulation, a regulatory authority. Even today, the PCI can, at the most, censure. That is the gravest punishment that the PCI can give. It cannot impose its will on the media. If the media doesn’t follow the directions given by the PCI, then there is no remedy against it, under the present legislation.

AK: How do we ensure that the government does not interfere with the regulatory processes?
PBS: The government may intervene selectively, as it has been doing.

AK: That’s always been the case regardless of who is in power.
PBS: Yes.

AK: What is your assessment of your time as the PCI chairman?
PBS: During my period as the chairman, I was responsible for bringing in legislation like the Right to Information Act. I could persuade the government. First of all, I held a conference of some senior journalists, it also included some lawyers and judges. A draft was prepared by me and sent to the broadcasting ministry. At that time, I think, Gujral was the prime minister. Later in my tenure as chairman, the RTI Act was enacted according to our draft.

When I was a judge of the Supreme Court, the judgment that air waves are a public property was given by me and my colleagues. That is how you, me and everybody else today, instead of having to depend on one channel like Doordarshan, have about 400 other channels. People forget this fact that they had, till 1993, to depend only on one channel, the government channel, Doordarshan. [Since then,] there has been an expansion of particularly electronic media. That has given employment to so many journalists, so many technicians, so many artists. And so much talent is coming up in every field. That fact has to be emphasised because the regulation of electronic media should not mean punishment of the channel. It is the correction.

We are actually enjoying the right to information, though it is sought to be cut down day by day. It is being diluted.

AK: What is your assessment of the functioning of the PCI since the Narendra Modi government has come to power in 2014? Do you believe that it has come under the political influence of the ruling dispensation?

PBS: Frankly, I have not seen their verdicts after I left the PCI. Therefore, it will not be possible for me to say anything about it. 

AK: To revisit the defamation suit that you had filed against Arnab Goswami, do you still believe that the 100-crore lawsuit was justified? At that time journalists had argued that it was an attack on free press. In hindsight, do you still think it was the correct decision to take?
PBS: When the news appeared on Times Now, we immediately gave them a notice. He did not reply. When the second notice was given, he did not reply. It is only when we filed a complaint that he came out with a written statement which had nothing to defend him, as far as he was concerned. So, it can’t be said that this is a large amount. He was given ample opportunity but he just didn’t care. So how does one go about it?

AK: Back in 2008, did he offer to meet you and then say that he is ill and not show up?
PBS: Yes, that is correct. It was because he didn’t want to pay anything. He only said that we will publish our apology. You see, many are under the impression that just because a particular news report appeared, this case was filed. It was not. Two notices were given, which he fully discarded.

AK: If you consider the social backgrounds of the journalists who faced physical violence in say, Kashmir or Delhi, and in cases of journalists who have been imprisoned, they are largely from Bahujan backgrounds. These attacks generally go unnoticed by media watchdogs like the PCI. Do you think caste is a factor here? Is it because of the upper-caste dominance in these bodies that attacks on Bahujans don’t receive the condemnation they deserve?
PBS: You see, there has been upper-class domination in all the institutions of the government. Whether it is bureaucracy, judiciary, police or the army or other institutions like PCI. So far, except the upper-castes and that too upper-caste men, the rest—even the women of higher castes—were excluded from learning. They were punished. Now this is at the most the first generation of other castes, who are learning. You will find, accordingly, that a very small percentage of journalists, whether it is electronic media or print media come from the non-elite class. Unless the media is represented by all sections of the society, we will not get a fair and just treatment of the news and the events and the individuals who matter.

This interview has been edited and condensed.